John-Raphael Straude defines autobiography as, “a dialogue of the self with itself in the present about the past for the sake of self-understanding” (Staude 249). Although autobiography may acquire many functions, its aid in understanding oneself is an important one. In particular, autobiography and narrative promote understanding of people’s lives, the world, and improve their sense of connectedness with the world around them.
One of the many important purposes that autobiography serves is to help the authors get to know themselves, and to help them better understand their lives. An essential factor to gaining this understanding is self-reflection, which involves mentally isolating themselves from the world in which they live in order to observe, analyze, and interpret who they are and the significance of circumstances in their lives. Although there is evidence to suggest benefits of self-evaluation in the autobiographical process, there is much controversy as to whether or not looking inward is self-destructive. Many critics claim that autobiography in terms of self-reflection is narcissistic. According to Alexander Lowen, a narcissist is “a person who is preoccupied with him- or herself to the exclusion of everyone else” (Lowen 6). In autobiography, some say that self-reflection, in the act of singling oneself out as unique from others, causes the author to become diverted from the influences of society’s values and norms. They claim that this in turn can cause an unrealistic sense of self, and because one is finding meaning and individualism in his/her experience, he/she finds oneself even deeper in isolation (Felski 89). In other words, because the writer is isolating him/herself from society by concentrating on the self as the focal subject, the author misses the full picture.
Another important argument in autobiography is the question of whether or not the individual self really exists. Although humans are all obviously physically separate beings, some critics, such as Michael Mascuch, argue that “the self as an integral unit is a ‘fiction,’ an elaborate metaphor created to organize the process of actually being individuated in personal experience” (Mascuch 15). What he is stating is that this “self” that humans value as significant is not functional for greater society, and furthermore, unnatural. The concept of individualism is produced and promoted by culture, particularly Western culture, and by language, such as the frequent use of the word “I” (Mascuch 14-15). Critics feel that by focusing on the “fictional” self, the author’s knowledge of their life that he/she may gain will become fictitious, too. These criticisms raise important questions as to whether or not autobiographical authors are successful in their goal of better understanding their lives.
Although some claim self-reflection in autobiography to be destructive by nature, they fail to realize the vast benefits that self-evaluation provides the author....